Tabletop Review: Pirates & Dragons

Pirates & Dragons (Renaissance)
Publisher: Cakebread and Walton
Cost: $24.99 (PDF)
Page Count: 348
Release Date: 04/17/2014
Get it Here: DriveThruRPG.com

Hey look! I’m FINALLY getting around to review it. What can I say – April and May have been busy month for me reviewing-wise. Still, I finally got a chance to look finish my thoughts on this weight tome from Cakebread and Walton, so let’s get into it.

Pirates & Dragons was a successful Kickstarter back in October of 2013. While the first attempt failed, the second succeeded and a 114 gamers invested in the system. While I was not one of them, I did decide to pick it up upon release. This is partly because there hasn’t been a dearth of new games/systems like the past two years and partly because other reviews have enjoyed Cakebread and Walton products. Chuck Platt for example adored their, Abney Park’s Steamship Pirates while both Lowell Francis and Matt Faul enjoyed Clockwork and Chivalry (First and Second Edition respectfully). I felt it was my turn to give Cakebread and Walton a try. What I found was an interesting game that, while not my favorite new game of 2014, was definitely worth the time and energy to both read and try.

Pirates and Dragons uses the Renaissance system. Now I haven’t played anything using those mechanics so I can’t compare the P&D rules with the core ones, so please don’t be looking for that in this review. One thing that I can state is a bit of strangeness that caught my eye almost immediately. You’ll see the third page of the PDF (second page in the physical copy) has the Wizards of the Coast OGL. However, the system used in Pirates & Dragons is Chaosium’s Basic Role Playing. I’m a little confused and perplexed why the play note to WotC but not the company that actually owns and controls the system P&D (and thus Renassiance) is based on. Just look at the character creation process. It’s ripped right out of BRP (Or Call of Cthulhu if you prefer). The stats, how they are rolled, professions, skill points and everything else aren’t based off d20 mechanics. I did a word search on the entire PDF for “Chaosium” and nothing came up, which is interesting and although potentially legally shady. Ah well, that’s more publishers to duke it out about. At least you know the groundwork for the game is based off one of the best systems ever, right?

Chapter One of Pirates & Dragons talks about the games setting. Here you’ll find quick summaries about all the factions in the Dragon Isles (where the game takes place). The world is set up similar to our own with the Dragon Isles appearing to be in the equivalent of the Caribbean. The main ocean the game takes place in is the Adalantic and on the eastern side of said Adalantic is the continent of Uropa. Yep. Different factions include Islanders, Dragon Tribes (islanders ruled by a dragon), the Uropans, Pirates and of course, Dragons. The game isn’t low fantasy considering there is magic and dragons, but it’s definitely not high fantasy either, as things are somewhat grounded in the real world and there aren’t a ton of fantasy races running around. It’s just humans and dragons for the most part.

Chapter Two is “Characters” and its here where we get the BRP style character creation system mentioned earlier. Here’s also where you start to get specific lingo for the game. The person running it is the GM. Characters are Adventurers. So on and so forth. Starting skills are done slightly different from BRP. Instead of set values per skill to which you add bonus points, in Pirates & Dragons all the core skills are determined by a specific stat times or plus a multiplier. So Ranged Combat is INT+DEX while Influence is CHAx2. You then pick your profession and culture which gives you further bonus points. There are a lot less skills than in BRP and it is worth noting only Islanders start off with a Magic attribute (MAG) where most BRP games use POW for Magic. Finally you pick a talent which makes your character stand out a bit more, and then you’re done. It’s a pretty fast and easy character system.

Chapter Three is “Skills” and here is where we start to get into mechanics. Skill tests are rolled via d100 (again similar to BRP). Equal or less to your characters rating in the skill and you succeed. If you roll over, you fail. Again, pretty cut and dry. The game also included Doubloons which are similar to Savage Worlds‘ “bennies” or the XP method in Numenera. Doubloons are super useful as they can give characters automatic successes. However, one doubloon in each game is actually a cursed one and instead of giving an automatic success, it is an automatic failure. This is a cute system actually, although unless the GM is paying close attention, it will be easy for players to peak and see which is the cursed doubloon and thus keep away from it.

Chapter 4 is “Combat” and you get things like initiative, distance modifiers, how to attack, parry and so on. Like BRP, you roll a d100 and if you roll equal or less than the skill you are using, you succeed. However the opponent has a chance to dodge or parry, but only once a round. There are various combat maneuvers to give the system a bit of depth, but it’s pretty simple over all, and I mean that in a good way. Pirates & Dragons should be a very easy system to learn, allowing gamers of all skill levels to just jump right in and have fun.

“Rules and Systems” is the name of Chapter Five and it’s more mechanics ahoy with this one. Do you want rules for travel speeds? It’s in here. Need mechanics for how weather effects skills? It’s in here. Want to know what darkness does to perception tests? It is in here. This is obviously the most rules heavy part of the book, as well as the driest and dullest, but when aren’t these things true for a RPG? Fatigue, fear, falling, poisons, encumbrance and all the usual rigmarole can be found here. Just be aware there isn’t any set order for this section. It’s a bit chaotic and can be hard to find the bits of mechanics you are looking for the first few times through the book. Trust me when I say the index is your friend with this one. This is also the chapter where you learn how Adventurers advance. You actually get XP (called Improvement Points here) instead of the usual BRP advancement system where you get a chance to improve any skill used in the previous adventure. Here you earn a few Improvement Points per game and then can spend each point on a chance to improve a skill. You then roll your d100. If you go over your current rating, you get 1d4+1 points added to your skill. If you get under or equal your rating, you get a single point added. It’s also worth noting that skills do not have a set maximum, so you could keep spending points on a skill you have at 100, only to raise it a single point each time. With perseverance and a lot of sessions, you too can get that skill up to 150 (although it might showcase you as certifiably insane).

Chapter Six is “Ships and Crews.” This is pretty much what you would expect. There is a long list of different types of ships followed by a chart showcasing the stats for said ships. There’s a also a short list of upgrades and a host of combat rules for naval vessels. What’s here is very interesting, but also a bit chaotic. The chapter could be easily re-arranged for better flow as well as putting things in a more logical or intuitive order. The chapter ends with various ways (legal or otherwise) to obtain a ship and/or crew. Because some ships can have hundreds of crew people, this is also where you will find rules for large scale combat between crewmen.

Chapter Seven is “Equipment.” It’s worth noting that Silver Ducats are the primary coin in the game and instead of the old 10: 1 ratio that exists in most fantasy RPGs, you’ll find 20 Silver Ducats equals a single gold one. This chapter has everything you will ever need for your characters and then some. Clothing, general home items, food, weapons, even animals or prosthetics are in this chapter for you. You’ll also see two “Dragon Artifacts” mentioned quickly in the chapter, but most eyes will pass over them as the weapons and respective charts for killing implements follow immediately after.

Chapter Eight is “Magic,” and remember, only Islander character start with the ability to cast spells. There are two types of magic – Island Magic, which is basically white magic cross with shamanistic style spell casting, and Dragon Magic, which is black, foul necromantic type stuff. The rules are mostly the same, but a character can only cast one form of magic or the other – NEVER both. So be aware of that. Dragon Magic will almost always be used by evil NPCs while Adventurers will pretty much only have Island Magic unless you are playing a game of evil dragon worshippers. It’s also worth noting that there is no Magic in the east aka Uropa…even if the book has a typo and calls that the West. This is the chapter where you learn how MAG works such as the number of spells one can cast per day and how one learns new spells. There are eighteen pages of spells to close out the chapter. Some have descriptions as short as a paragraph while others are half a page long. Regardless, these spells should keep PCs and GMs busy for some time. Who knows? If the game is successful, maybe we will see a supplement for new spells. The chapter ends with Adalantan Magic Items and it’s simply a list and decription of magic items PCs might come across in their game. The chapter also suggests they shouldn’t be sold ala D&D and that cursed items are very rare indeed. Most of the items provided here are combat oriented. It’s a pretty short and sweet chapter.

Chapter Nine is “Cultures,” and it’s a deeper, more fleshed out version of Chapter One. You get the history of the known world and the nations (including pirates and dragons) currently engaging in intrigue within the Dragon Isles. This chapter is perhaps my favorite in the book as you really get to know all the nations in the game. I walked away from this chapter feeling Pirates & Dragons is basically a nautical D&D mixed with BRP and of course, 7th Sea. There are no secrets or GM only tidbits to be had here. It’s just a straight up, extremely informative look at the fantasy world that Pirates & Dragons takes place in. Everyone will find a particular group that they will especially love. In my case, it was the dragons. There are some fantastic takes on the old tropes here.

Chapter Ten is the Gazetteer and it gives a list of islands in the area along with a description of each. If you’re looking for a full map of the Dragon Isles, you’ll want to go back to Chapter One for that. The information here is extremely brief with each island only getting a paragraph or two at the most. The exceptions are Paradis, Safehaven and Nieuw Brugge, which gets a full page of content devoted to them. It’s a very sparse and underwhelming chapter. In some ways, it is the opposite of the previous chapter.

Chapter Eleven is “Creatures” and this is the equivalent of the game’s Monster Manual. Now the creatures in here aren’t going to be orcs or hobgoblins. Nor are their wights or death knights. These are all creatures that fit the game’s theme and atmosphere. For example, you have a Aspidochelone, which is a turtle so large, vegetation has begun to grow on its shell, making it resemble an island. Now the game does have Cyclops, ghouls and Insect people, so those of you used to more D&D style monsters have options here. Otherwise, expect to see an Island style Lich (who is somewhat different from the version we are used to in RPGs), Krakens and even south/central American style mummies. Perhaps my favorite creature in the section is the Monkey Bat, although the fowl mouthed parrot comes close.

Our final chapter in the collection is “Games Master” and this is obvious for GM eyes only. So don’t look players, or you’ll get spoilers. In truth, all that is here in this chapter is the usual GM tips and tricks every core rulebook gives you. It’s advice on how to run a game and keep it fun. There are a few adventure seeds to be had too. There are seven pretty generic seeds here, but they are meant to help you learn how to create adventures for the game, rather than dazzle you with their complexity and/or originality. The chapter ends with a list of NPCs and…that’s the book my friends. Well, aside from characters sheets and an index.

So overall I liked Pirates & Dragons. it probably won’t ever be a game I play regularly and it certainly won’t replace options like 7th Sea in my collection, but I enjoyed it for what it was. The game isn’t perfect by any means, and there is definitely room for improvement, but what first edition core rulebook can’t you say that about? I think that a pirate/fantasy hybrid is probably a niche title at best, and also one that could already be done by other systems so I’m not sure how big of a market there is or will be for Pirates & Dragons. That said, the world is nicely fleshed out and I do hope to see some further supplements for the game. I’m definitely glad I got to spend time with Pirates & Dragons and although it’s a pretty expensive PDF compared to other options out there, if you’re looking for a pirate oriented mid-fantasy RPG, this is your best (only?) option that I’ve seen so far.

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